Astana (formerly known as Aqmola, Tselinograd and Nur-Sultan), in the north of Kazakhstan, is the capital and the second largest city of the country. Modern Astana is a planned city, designed by Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa. It is home to a range of futuristic buildings, including many skyscrapers.
The city took over the role as capital from Almaty (the largest city) in December 1998. Now the city is growing and is undergoing a transformation costing billions of dollars, with top international architects assisting in trying to make it a worthy capital — not only of Kazakhstan but of Central Asia. Astana presents an interesting and intriguing blend of old Soviet architecture with the modern designs of Norman Foster and the like. It still does not offer the comforts and thrills of its Western counterparts, or of Almaty, but has its own charms and pleasures.
The settlement was founded in 1830 as Akmola and was given town status 1832, when its name was Russianized to Akmolinsk. In the 1960s, the town found itself as the nerve centre of the Soviet "Virgin Lands Campaign", which involved ploughing natural steppe landscapes into cereal fields, with an eye towards boosting the agricultural production of the union to the self-sufficiency levels. It was accordingly renamed to Tselinograd; tselina in Russian denotes a fertile but uncultivated land. After it was made the capital of independent Kazakhstan, it became known as Astana, which literally means "capital city" in the Kazakh language. This was changed to Nur-Sultan in 2019 after Nursultan Nazarbayev, the first president of Kazakhstan, who had just stepped down from office. The name Astana was restored in September 2022.
English is quite often understood by hotels and restaurants in Astana, but the go-to language is Russian.
No-one will expect you to know any Kazakh so a few civilities go a long way. If you know any Turkish, things like numbers and days of the week are similar.
See Kazakhstan for visa information, but most western passport holders don't need a visa for visits of up to 30 days.
- 1 Nursultan Nazarbayev International Airport (NQZ IATA) (about 15 km (9.3 mi) south of central Nursultan).
There are flights from Vienna Schwechat, Kyiv, Moscow, Beijing, Delhi, Seoul Incheon, Bangkok, Istanbul IST, Dubai, London Heathrow, Amsterdam Schiphol, Hannover and Frankfurt Airport, as well as several domestic destinations. Air Astana, the flag carrier of Kazakhstan, flies to Almaty, Delhi, Dubai, Frankfurt Airport, Hannover, Istanbul IST, Moscow-Sheremetyevo, and Urumqi from Astana Airport.
Low-cost Wizzair flies from Budapest and Abu Dhabi. And the low-cost airline FlyArystan has connections to Istanbul, Sharjah and Kutaisi.
Bus 10 and Bus 12 connect the airport and the city centre at least twice hourly, the price is 60 tenge. You can find the timetable at the bus stop directly in front of the main entrance to T2 (domestic) terminal. It's a one-minute walk from T1 (international) terminal. A taxi from the airport to the city centre is about US$20.
- 2 Astana 1 Railway Station (north side of city). For timetables and tickets see https://tickets.kz/en/gd. Three direct trains run daily between Almaty and Astana, taking 20 hours overnight. For Russia, there's a direct train to Moscow (not daily) via Petropavlovsk; or travel to Chelabynsk (18 hours) for connections across the Urals and European Russia. For Urumqi in western China, a weekly train runs via Karagandy, Aktogai and Dostyk.
- 3 Astana Nurly Zhol railway station (10 km east of city). Opened in 2017 ahead of Expo to cope with rising traffic, many trains terminate here. Bus 50 runs frequently downtown, and Bus 48 connects the two stations. Still no sign of the promised metro. The station resembles an airport or new train stations in China - spacious, similar to an airport with divided departure and arrival zones. Station security is omnipresent, but tolerates staying in waiting zones for a long time, even after disembarking from the train. Features free Wi-Fi and a few power plugs.
So which railway station? As of autumn 2019, trains from Russia are still using Astana-1, while trains to Urumqi in China are using Nurly Zhol. The fastest trains to Almaty also use Nurly Zhol, but it's a mixture for this and other Kazakh destinations. Check locally near the day of travel.
There are plenty of taxis, expect to pay 500-2000 tenge for a trip within the city. Astana Taxi (call 15800) are the franchise for some dozen operators, with prominently marked cars. Their booking website is in Russian but seems to accept English character input.
Yandex and Uber are ubiquitous and even in tough weather conditions you shouldn't expect to wait more than 5 minutes for a car.
Street taxis: Stand at the side of any road and thumb down a passing car, within 3 minutes you should have a string of them. Tell them your destination and they will either drive off or gesture you in. It is useful to know numbers so you can set a price for the journey before starting. They are about half the price of official taxis, reckon 500 tenge for a cross river trip. Some drivers will practice their English on you, others will race along the streets like a maniac, slowing down for the obvious speed cameras. Use this method with caution and try to travel in groups.
Public buses (Astra Bus) have a flat fare of 180 tenge, pay the conductor on board (or driver if there is no conductor). The buses are efficient and comfortable, but they are often full. Some buses are from the 1990s, but there are also newer buses from the last 10 years that match any modern city in terms of the quality of the bus. For bus routes, times and real time location updates, download the very useful Astrabus smartphone app. Another useful app is 2GIS.
The municipal authorities have published a journey planner. But you must choose the bus number to see the route. This is not helpful if you know where you want to go but don't know which bus to take! Once you're on the bus, there is a route map, so it's worth taking a photo of that on your phone for later trips around the city! When you get on a bus tell the conductor your destination and they will either tell you when to get off or gesture you to get on another bus.
The number 12 bus does a nice loop around the new part of the city with the palace etc., so this is a nice one for a tour. Bus 19 runs from the railway station, down Beibilitsky Street, then through the centre eventually out past the National Museum.
Buses serving further regional destinations depart from Saparzhay (Автовокзал "Сапаржай) which is adjacent to the railway station. Times and tickets on their website.
A Metro line is under construction between the airport and Nurly Zhol railway station. As of 2022 construction has been called to an indefinite halt.
- 1 Bayterek Tower (Бәйтерек, Bäyterek). An example of the futuristic architecture in the newborn city. Nicknamed Chupa Chups by the locals due to its similarity to a giant lollipop, this 97-m-high building offers a great view of the city as well as an art gallery, an aquarium and a restaurant. There is a pleasant bar on one of the upper levels. In the centre of the top sphere, the ever-so-humble President Nazarbayev made a golden palm print where visitors may put their own hands. At busier times the queue for the palm can be very long. Nazarbayev designed the Baiterek himself and the original sketches can be seen in the national museum. 500 tenge for adults, 150 tenge for 5-15 (with documentation), under 5s are free.
- 2 Khan Shatyr. It's a giant transparent tent big enough to hold 10,000 people. The 150-m-high tent has a 200-m elliptical base covering an area larger than 10 football stadiums, and contains a park, a shopping and entertainment area with squares and cobbled streets, a boating river, minigolf and an indoor beach resort. It even contains its own monorail with several stops. While Astana is one of the world's coldest capitals with temperatures down to -40°C in the cold season, the transparent material lets sunshine in and helps to keep temperatures comfortable all year.
- 3 National Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan (Main bus routes stop outside). Tu-Su 10:00-20:00. The national museum moved to this location in 2014. The museum is huge and very modern with interactive displays in English, Russian and Kazakh. Popular with tour groups but it's big enough to absorb them. The displays take you through the history of Kazakhstan up to the modern day. It also hosts an art gallery with many temporary exhibitions. The main entrance hall is huge with a golden eagle that flaps its wings to patriotic music at certain times in the day. One of the highlights is on the ground floor where an animated diorama of the planned Nur-Sultan emerges out of the floor on the hour, be sure to get there early as it can get crowded. The golden hall display has a model of the golden man costume along with a range of other beautiful golden objects found around Kazakhstan. Don't miss Nazabayev's rough sketches for the presidential palace and Baiterek. 700 tenge for main collection, 300 tenge concessions, additional 1000 tenge to visit the golden gallery.
- 4 Khazret Sultan Mosque (Holy Sultan Mosque; Kazakh: Әзірет Сұлтан мешіті) (Next to the National Museum, and visible for miles around). Daily 09:00-21:00, but tourists should avoid Friday afternoon prayers. Completed in 2012, it's the largest mosque in Kazakhstan and the second largest in Central Asia. A vast calm soaring space, can accommodate up to 10,000 worshippers.
- 5 The Military Historical Museum of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Barayev 3 (surrounded by scary looking roads, there are several underpasses to get you to this museum). Tu-Su 10:00-20:00. Built like a yurt with a dome resembling a mosque. It contains exhibitions about the history of the military of Kazakhstan. There is large focus on the Great Patriotic War and a collection of memorabilia related to Nazabayev, including some of his official stationery, a tank commander's hat that he wore and a big official painting of him. Don't miss the upper levels that have some excellent war paintings or the soviet style paintings as you enter the building. Free.
- 6 Atameken Map of Kazakhstan. An outdoor museum giving you an overview of the entire country in a miniature version. This 1.7-hectare exhibit features more than 200 mock-up pieces, creating Kazakh cities and historical memorials. During the summer months at least, there are normally English speaking guides available (optional obviously), should you wish to learn a little about the models, and there is a covered section which focuses on the newer constructions within the city. Taking photos sometimes requires an extra payment to be made – you may want to keep cameras in your bag until you pass out of sight of the front ticket office. There is a covered map of Astana on a platform overlooking the rest of the map, be sure to visit the exhibition underneath this, which offers dioramas of Kazakhstani industry, sport and culture.
- 7 Palace of Peace and Reconciliation. The pyramid portion of the building is 62 m high and sits on a 15-m-high earth-covered block. All of this construction is above ground level. The building holds a summit of all religions of the world every 2–3 years. Though the landscaping of the park rises up to cover the lower levels, these are not in fact basements. This building offers a great view of the city, two art galleries, an archaeological and ethnographic museum, opera hall, and a cafe.
- 8 Duman. An entertainment complex consisting of an oceanarium, 3D theatre, dome area, souvenir shops and cafes. The aquarium is unique for being located over 3,000 km away from the ocean! It has more than 2000 sea inhabitants, the representatives of 100 species of sea fauna from different parts of the world. You can also see "Mermaid" and sharks-feeding shows at the aquarium. In the Motion Theatre you can make an underwater trip under the command of captain Mac-Cloud during the World War II, to overcome the traps while rescuing the gorgeous princess, confined in the dungeon, go on a tour to the past to dinosaur age, escorted by a troll etc.
- 9 Nur-Astana Mosque. The second largest mosque in Astana and the third largest in Central Asia, completed in 2008. The dome area contains symbols from all over the world like the Statue of Liberty, the fragment of the great Chinese wall, the "Doriphor" statue, Parthenon and others.
- 10 Kazakh Eli monument. It's next to Pyramid (Palace of Peace) and has a small statue of the first president of the Republic of Kazakhstan. It is about 100 metres tall and has a mythical golden bird Samryk on the top. Monument is made from white marble and surrounded by very beautiful fountains.
- 11 Shabyt Palace. Shabyt is a palace of arts situated to the right of Kazakh Eli monument. It is a dish like building made from glass.
- 12 Palace of Independence. Many political and business gatherings are held in this palace. The summit of the OSCE (Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe) took place in December 2010 in this building; 56 countries were invited and it was one of the largest gatherings of Heads of State (bigger than Washington Nuclear Summit). Summits concerning ecology were held in October 2010 and 2011.
- 13 Museum of the First President of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Abay 11 (near corner with Zheltoksan). Tu-Su 10:00-18:00. Enter via the security gate on Abay. This imposing building was the seat of power before the new presidential palace was built. Nursultan Nazarbayev (born 1940) was president from independence in 1990 until March 2019; he then resigned but retained the powerful position of Chairman of the Security Council. The building showcases his life, achievements and awards. You can ask for an English guide book, but the exhibits are self-explanatory. Pictures are only allowed on the first (i.e. ground) floor and outside. You'll need to don covers for your shoes and store any baggage in the cloakroom. There may be a school party in but chances are you'll be the only visitor. Go up to the third floor and work your way down, via state rooms preserved as they were during his presidency, and gifts and awards given to Nazarbayev including a machine gun from the Saudis. There's a small gift shop on the ground floor with the normal tourist knickknacks. Free.
- Alzhir, Memorial Museum of Victims of Political Repressions and Totalitarianism. Former Gulag camp for female family members of those condemned to Gulag. Located in Akmol (aka Malinovka) next to main highway. Entrance 500 tenge, audio guide 500 tenge. Inside memorial building has documentary exhibits. To reach Akmol take the Astana–Korgalzhyn bus (departing at 10:00, 11:50, 13:00, 14:30, 400 tenge) from central bus station Saparzhay, get off at Akmol.
- REVision Park Cinema in English: Every Tuesday at 20:00, 24 Turan St. Sary Arka Shopping Mall (3d Floor).  [dead link], Revision Park is a new project of Language Leader [dead link] and KinoPark Multiplex cinemas .
- Ak Bulak sauna Complex, 8th kilometre on the Astana-Airport highway (Olympic stadiums), ☏ (reception), (cell). 24 hr. A sauna complex with 3 private VIP double floor saunas (for a party of 6, 9 and 12 people). Each sauna is decorated in a different geographic style and has its own swimming pool, Finnish and Russian steam rooms (banya), jacuzzi, hamam, entertainment hall with a banquet table, billiard, karaoke, TV with cable channels and 2 private relax rooms. The Complex has its own parking lot and conveniently located on the main Astana–Airport highway (not far from Olympic stadiums). Ak Bulak sauna Complex is an excellent way to enjoy cold and windy Astana and feel the bathing tradition of Kazakhs. Food and beverages are provided at the Complex. Different types of massage can be ordered at the reception. from US$20-60/hour.
- Football: the men's national team play at Astana Arena (capacity 30,000), 4 km south of city centre along Qabanbai Batyr Ave. The city's club FC Astana also play here in the Premier League, Kazakhstan's top tier.
- 1 Talisman, 7 Republic Avenue and a larger shop on 18/2 Syganak Street. Daily 10:00-20:00. A great little souvenir shop boasting over 3,500,000 different types of gifts, including T-shirts, felt products, leather paintings, contemporary art, traditional musical instruments, desk sets and jewellery and stuffed leopards. A bit expensive and the staff watch you very carefully to make sure you don't shoplift, but there is a good variety of goods.
- TSUM also has a nice little souvenir shop in the second floor with traditional Kazakh souvenirs.
- TSUM The central shopping mall on Kenesary Street, across from Congress Hall has some shops for clothes, perfumes, a camera shop, cafe and a small supermarket.
- New Western-style shopping malls have sprung up with all the variety of shopping you would expect from a mall in the West including:
- Keruen on the Left Bank near Bayterek. Supermarket, Cinema, Babylon (video-arcade/indoor rides for children). Food court.
- Mega on Turan Street. Cinema. Ramstor supermarket. Climbing wall. Food court.
- Sara Arkai on Turan Street. Cinema. Supermarket.
- Ramstor is another chain of supermarkets that is popular among Westerners. They sell lots of things you can't find elsewhere such as macaroni and cheese, microwave popcorn, Worcestershire Sauce, barbeque sauces, tortilla chips, salsa and so on.
- Asia Park. Next to Central Mosque. Has a nice skybar with a pretty good view. Includes an Alma supermarket with good bakery, dairy, tinned food and frozen food. Fruit and vegetables don't look so good (in late 2011). Some basic homeware is also on sale. There is a Finn Mark shop for winter clothes. There is also a Fitness First gym.
- Artem. This is half way between a bazaar (as some people call it) and an old fashioned shopping mall. The ground floor is open and feels like a market - it has lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, and dried fruit and nuts, all for sale in market stalls; plus mobile phone shops at one end. There are also areas that sell meat and fish. The many upper floors contain mostly clothes shops - a bit more reasonably priced than Mega, Khan Shatyr etc., plus toiletries, furniture, and more.
- Shanghai. These are big supermarkets that are more like bazaar mostly for the groceries but they also have clothes.
- Eurasia. One of the first shopping centres in Astana. Has everything for a little bit lower prices.
- With China relatively close, you can find many electronic gadgets in the shops, just remember that returns policies are not as customer-friendly as in the West. Also some of the latest gadgets such as iPhones and iPods are more expensive here than in Western countries.
- Khan Shatyr. Has a Greens supermarket - well laid out (the aisles aren't straight, so it doesn't have that factory-like feel of typical supermarkets). Prices are reasonable considering it's in the Khan Shatyr. There is also a Debenhams in Khan Shatyr.
Beshbarmak - a horse meat and pasta dish. Most restaurants that serve it will present a portion enough for two or three people. Boursaky - bread best served piping hot, resembles an unsweetened doughnut. Shashliq - these kebabs are often cheap, and the one thing you're sure to recognise on the menu.
- Along Turan street (formerly Sara Arka), there's a strip of restaurants that are a little more expensive but good. They also have private rooms for parties, saunas, and even hotel rooms.
- Cafe Shymkent, General Sabyr Raqymov (Block north of Artyom Shopping Centre). Daily 08:00-00:00. Cheap and cheerful place.
- Melnitsa (Windmill), Turan 31 (near Khan Shatyr). Daily 12:00-00:00. Ukrainian restaurant with large dining areas. Lots of traditional dishes like potato pancakes and of course Chicken Kyiv. Live music in the evenings. Fresh bread oven. Great décor, like a farmer's hut. Mains 500-3,000 tenge.
- 1 Sattj, 32 Kabanbay Batyr, ☏ , firstname.lastname@example.org. Daily 12:00-02:00. Serves mainly Kazakh food, with some European.
- 2 Line Brew, Kenesary 20. Daily 12:00-02:00. Popular with expats and locals alike, Line Brew features its own brew of beer, with an impressive menu that includes several delicious steaks, including one made of horse meat.
- 3 Ali Babas, 3 Bukeikhan St (north of the river). May-Sept daily 12:00-00:30. Popular summer restaurant. The waitresses and waiters dress in traditional dress and the menu offers a selection of central Asian cuisine. Prices are in line with Europe or America but the food is good. Fake bird cages hang from the roof which tweet electronically. Camel and horse milk are on offer alongside Leffe beer. 3000 tenge.
- Rafe, 5 Zhengis Ave (block north of river). M-F 08:00-00:00, Sa Su 10:00-00:00. A modern coffee bar offering Italian food with a twist. Be sure to check out the horse pizza. 3000 tenge.
- 4 Turfan, Azerbaijan Mambetov 10 (was Alikhan Bokeikhan St), ☏ . Daily 11:00-23:00. Popular cafe with Turkish and other Central Asian food. Limited English, just point to the menu pictures. Alcohol served except in Ramadan.
- Kumis - different varieties are available of this mare's milk, some are a little salty. Slightly fermented. Can contain alcohol.
- Shubat - local variety of fermented camel milk. Contains some alcohol.
- Vodka - supermarkets stock a huge variety, ranging from US$2 bottles that will strip your throat to US$115 bottles that are more for giving as a present or showing off your wealth. Shots tend to be drunk, rather than utilising mixers - don't feel obliged to down each and every one if at a celebration.
- Cognac - what we would refer to as brandy, again a wide range in the shops and restaurants. Same rules apply regarding shots - with all the toasts made at parties and other gatherings, you may want to pace yourself.
There are more than 10 discos (night clubs) that are frequently referenced by locals: Chocolate , A8, Fusion, Ice, etc. Chocolate is in the same building as the SAS Radisson hotel, but may only be open on selected days (weekends). "Ice" (centrally located - ask locals for the address) has a nice atmosphere and is on two floors with a large dance area. Prices are towards the high end, no entrance fee on Thursday night.
- 1 Hostel Nomad 4x4, Nurtas Ongdasynov Street 52A, ☏ . Neat dorms, gender separated. Mix of locals and foreigners from all over the world. Kitchen and fridge available for guests, as well as sale of drinks. Walking distance from Bayterek tower and the Circus. dorm 2000 tenge, double/twin 6000 tenge.
- 2 Absolute Hotel, Beibitshilik Street 1 (by corner of Moscow St, 2 km from Astana-1 railway station), ☏ . Good mid-range business hotel. B&B double US$43.
- Ibis Nur-Sultan Hotel, Tauelsizdik Ave 38, corner with Bauryzhan Momyshuly. US$35.
- 3 Hotel Duman, Korgaldzinsko 2A (off Turan Ave), ☏ . 18-story block with 213 rooms overlooking the park and river. Decent rooms with large firm beds and good bathrooms. The A/C struggles in summer. Ride the glass elevator to the 16th floor restaurant for the view not for the food. B&B double from US$44.
- 4 Rixos President Astana Hotel, Kunayeva 7, ☏ . Plushest hotel in town: heated bathroom floors, step-in showers and jacuzzi tubs, LCD wide-screen television, and free Wi-Fi. The service is friendly and professional. There is a bar, a cafe, and two restaurants, conference facilities, spa and pool. Splendid breakfast with harpist. Security can be heavy when they have VIPs staying. B&B double from US$118.
- 5 Radisson Hotel Astana, Saryarka Avenue 4, ☏ , email@example.com. 4-star just north of Ishim river with 180 rooms, clean & modern, with fitness center / sports club and spa. Rooms are modern with flat-screen TV and free internet. Wi-Fi in the rooms can be dodgy, but there is a cable alternative, and Wi-Fi works fine in the lobby/lounge. Hotel has a reliable Italian restaurant. Adjacent, Park Inn by Radisson seems to operate as a separate mid-range hotel. B&B double from US$78.
Mobile phone providers
There are three mobile phone providers: KCell, Tele2 and Beeline. All three offer mobile web (Edge, 3G). SIM cards are cheap and can be bought without filling in documentation.
There are cash machines in shopping centres, on the street and in most hotels. Most accept Visa and some people have had trouble with MasterCard. Most banks convert dollars, euros and roubles. Pounds are much harder to get rid of.
- 1 Canada, 13/1 Kabanbay Batyr, ☏ , fax: .
- China, 37 Kabanbai Batyra Ave, ☏ , fax: .
- Egypt, 24A Sarayshyk Street, Diplomatic Town, ☏ , fax: , firstname.lastname@example.org. 09:00-16:00.
- 2 Finland, Astana Tower 17th floor, 12 Samal Microdistrict, ☏ , fax: , email@example.com.
- 3 Germany, ul. Kosmonawtow 62, Chubary, ☏ , fax: , firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Greece, 109 Micro District Karaotkel 2010000, ☏ , (Emergencies), fax: , email@example.com. M-F 09:00-12:00 & 13:00-17:00.
- Netherlands, Kosmonavtov street 62, Renco building 3rd floor, Microdistrict Chubary, ☏ , fax: , firstname.lastname@example.org. M-F 09:00-13:00 & 13:30-17:30.
- [formerly dead link] India, Kaskad Business Center, 5th Floor 6/1, Kabanbai Batyr Ave, ☏ , fax: , email@example.com.
- 4 Israel, Mukhtar Auezov Street 8, ☏ , fax: , firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Italy, via Kosmonavtov 62, ☏ , (Emergency cellphone), fax: , email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com. Ambasciata d’Italia in Kazakhstan
- Romania, Str. Saraişâk (Saraishyk) 28, ☏ , fax: , firstname.lastname@example.org.
- 5 United Kingdom, 62, Kosmonavtov St, ☏ , fax: .
- 6 United States of America, Ak Bulak 4, Str. 23-22, building #3, ☏ , fax: , email@example.com.
Catholic church of Maria Santissima. Tashenov St - Services: Sunday 11:00 (Russian), 18:00 (English)
Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church of Saint Joseph. 1/2a Tauelsizdik Ave
Burabay National Park 3 hours north by train
Almaty 21 or 13 hours south by train